New Delhi, India: My father has struggled to complete his morning run for the past few weeks. Thick and unrelenting smog has settled over New Delhi, forcing residents to wear facemasks and invest in air purifiers. “My whole family has bought facemasks and air purifiers,” says Nikhil Dugal, long-term resident of the city.
Pollution levels are on the rise in developing cities like New Delhi, as president-elect Donald Trump has threatened to cancel the Paris Accord. This frustrating dichotomy and the need for American leadership in the fight against climate change were highlighted at United Nations COP22 summit that took place earlier in November.
“I was supposed to run a half-marathon in New Delhi last weekend, but pulled out because of the smog,” says Varun Gunaseelan, Project Director of the Himalayan Clean Cooking Project. “I didn’t want to struggle through an activity that I normally enjoy.”
According to real-time data provided by aciqn.org, a website that tracks air quality in major cities across the world, New Delhi consistently scored higher than Beijing in poor air quality this month. While Beijing has been scoring consistently in the 200’s—earning the city the ranking of “very unhealthy”—the Indian capital received a score of 552, or “very hazardous” earlier this month. That’s more than double Beijing’s average score in the past month. The score for one particular neighborhood in New Delhi is a, staggering 999 during the day.
To put it in perspective, levels of the smallest particle, PM 2.5, hit 688 micrograms per cubic meter in one neighborhood in New Delhi this month. PM 2.5 is particularly deadly as it has the ability to penetrate lungs and respiratory systems. Beijing’s average is 56, and New York City’s is 14. According to the World Health Organization, a healthy limit is 10 micrograms per cubic meter.
Pollution levels have since evened out in both cities after a series of emergency measures were put in place by the chief minister of Delhi, including a city-wide halting on construction and the closure of a power plant.
Residents of New Delhi have already returned to their daily routines, according to Nikhil. “Everyone thinks things are fine now but they’re not,” he says. “Air quality levels of 300 seem normal now.”
This cannot be seen as the norm. High pollution is not just limited to New Delhi. Half of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India, according to a report released by the World Health Organization earlier this year.
Local initiatives have mushroomed throughout the country to mitigate the effects of high levels of pollution. Varun Gunaseelan, who runs the Himalyan Clean Cooking Project, supplies clean cook stoves to remote communities in rural India. “Over 800 million people in India cook on open fires. Having an open fire in the kitchen is equivalent to burning 400 cigarettes an hour,” he says. “Clean cook stoves are easily adoptable and can reduce emissions by 70-90%”.
For India, the Paris Climate Agreement entered into force on November 4, 2016, around the same time as the massive spike in air pollution. Long-term changes must be made to ensure that we are keeping to our commitment to scale up efforts and support actions to reduce emissions. Currently, we’re not even close.
China is in the process of introducing an emissions trading scheme next year. While this was attempted in a few Indian states, the scheme has dealt with pushback, implementation problems, corruption, and non-transparency. India needs to have a stronger system in place to ensure that climate mitigation is a priority, and not just an afterthought.
Internationally, a global leader is needed to set the pace of and example for emissions reductions. The United States, India and China are the countries with three of the largest greenhouse gas emissions. The new American government must continue in accordance with its pledge to reduce the country’s footprint.
As China’s vice foreign minister, Liu Zhenmin said at the COP-22 , “We’re still expecting developed countries, including the United States to continue to take the lead on mitigating climate change”. This is a problem that affects us all. India needs to step up to the plate, but so does the rest of the world.
Prerna Choudhury is a Masters of Public Policy Student at Duke University.